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By otakuman5000 On 13 Apr, 2011 At 02:23 PM | Categorized As Editorials, PC Games, PlayStation, Xbox 360/Xbox One | With 2 Comments

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The latest AAA RPG is out today, filled with all the bloody combat, gray morality, and sexy women, or men, that you could want. That’s a no-brainer for a day one purchase, right?

Here’s another question: Do you go ahead and put down $60 + tax of your hard-earned money on it, knowing that there is already DLC on PSN/XBLA, and that all this content will probably be available next year with the core game as the “Game of the Year Edition”? Do you pay $60 for a game that by all accounts plays like it’s still in beta-testing in hopes that the designers will release patches to make it run correctly in the next few weeks?

One of the defining features of the seventh generation of consoles has been Internet access as a standard feature. While online capability for game systems has existed since the early 1980’s, this is the first time we’ve had the infrastructure that enables everyone to be online, in the form of Xbox Live, PSN, the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, or Steam. On the plus side, it has made gaming a truly social pastime. We can get onto Xbox Live, join a party with our friends, and rock it in everything from CoD: Black Ops to Bomberman. It has also brought us downloadable budget games that would otherwise have never been green-lighted by the platform holders or would have never been made due to the costs of publishing. The Internet has given us more freedom than ever before in our entertainment choices. And that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, not everything is quite so rosy. Online-capable consoles have brought the ills of post-release patching, DLC, and DRM into our living rooms. Through the Internet, a publisher now has the uncontested power to control how much access you have to the games you buy, whether or not you have that access in the first place, and how you share your gaming experiences with your friends and family. Much of this access is determined by how much something can be “monetized” by the provider. Because consoles are now Internet-enabled, publishers looking to meet key deadlines like Christmas can also push a game out the door before it has been thoroughly tested or even completed, with the idea that any problems that crop up or even missing game modes can be addressed by the release of an online patch after the game goes to retail.  The Internet has given content providers more power and control than at any point in the past.

Let’s take a look at some of the buzzwords of contemporary gaming.

DRM

A well-known anti-piracy campaign from Britain in the 1980's

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is not a new concept. This concept was codified in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1996, at a time when the “information superhighway” was being rolled out for the general public. Prior to 1996, it was simply known as copy protection, exemplified with famous slogans like “Don’t Copy That Floppy (disk)” and “Home Taping is Killing Music.”

Game production is increasingly expensive, and it’s understandable that the publisher and developers want a return on their investment. When a game fails to perform at retail, designers are laid off, a promising franchise dies, and in the worst-case scenario, the development studio may get shut down completely. Another result is that publishers are encouraged to stick with sequels to proven franchises like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed instead of introducing new properties. Publishers will often lay the blame for underperforming games on piracy, and more and more frequently, on the secondhand video game market. While it has always been commonplace for gamers to sell, buy, loan, and rent games, it is only within the past two years that publishers have raised the alarm over the used game market. Nevertheless, in the eyes of a publisher, every pirated or secondhand copy is a lost sale, and they seem particularly galled by used game sales, since the money that changes hands on a used sale is strictly between the seller and the buyer.

In order to counteract piracy and the used game market, publishers have long tried different methods. In the 1980s, it was common for publishers to implement copy protection that required the user to type in a piece of information from the game’s manual or packaging, the information being printed on paper that would show up as solid black on the Xerox machines of that time. As technology advanced, so did copy protection. Today, DRM often includes giving a limited number of installs of a game and requiring the game to periodically validate itself online with the publisher’s main server. While PC games have sported DRM, such as the notorious SecuROM, for years, these practices have now spread to consoles as well. Specifically for consoles, publishers have tried offering DLC with new copies as a positive incentive. EA and THQ have also experimented with a more punitive form of DRM, the online pass, where the buyer of a used copy of a game is required to pay an additional fee if he or she wishes to play a game online.

DLC

DLC, or downloadable content, is a more controversial issue, since unlike with DRM, there are potential benefits to both the publisher and the end user. DLC takes different forms depending on the game and genre. For FPS’s, it usually comes in the form of map packs for the multiplayer modes. Fighting games usually relegate it to extra characters or costumes for existing characters which do not impact the actual game. In RPGs, it can take the form of side quests as well as optional weapons or armor. Sometimes the DLC is fairly superficial, but other times, it is quite extensive, as with Fallout 3’s Broken Steel pack, which allowed continued play after the core game’s rather abrupt ending and upped the level cap from 20 to 30. In addition, there are many free-to-play (FTP) games whose revenue largely comes from DLC, known as microtransactions. This model has long been popular in South Korea and China. In the United States and Japan, it has been adopted by a number of MMORPGs who are not able to compete with the popularity of World of Warcraft as subscription games. It is also the revenue model of choice for the new breed of “social” games made for platforms like Flash, Facebook, iOS, and Android.

Publishers are increasingly offering controversial “day one” DLC as bonuses for purchases of new copies or for preorders, and while that is seen as a more positive incentive to buy new than an online pass, there are protests that gamers are having content intentionally withheld from the game for the purposes of milking it. The issue is even thornier when it is discovered that the DLC is nothing more than a code that unlocks content already printed on the data layer of the disc itself, which is considered to be the property of the purchaser under the First Sale Doctrine of the Copyright Act of 1976.

Publishers claim that DLC is a way to add value for customers, particularly buyers of new copies, and certainly it is a way for them to receive additional revenue from a copy of a game that in the past would have been completely lost to them once it was sold. From gamers, the opinions are mixed. While there are those who decry DLC as “nickel-and-diming,” there are those who enjoy the ability to continue the story of a favorite game beyond the main quest. There is also the question of paying real money for virtual goods, as some “free-to-play” games can cost money beyond a one-time $50-60 purchase for a retail game.  In one extreme case, parents have reported getting bills totalling hundreds of dollars for microtransactions from Smurf Village, a popular iOS FTP farming sim, a controversy that both Apple and the publisher, Capcom, have worked to address.  In this case there is the issue of the ethics of marketing seemingly cheap, tempting DLC to kids, who are more impulsive than adults on average,  as well as parental supervision and control of their kids’ online activities.

Bugs

As anyone who’s played a Lionhead, Bethesda or BioWare RPG lately can attest, bugs in retail games are becoming more and more noticeable. Bugs can range from graphical errors like broken textures, missing limbs, and floating items, to features of the game that don’t work correctly. In some cases, a bug can cause the game to freeze up, requiring a press of the power button to reset the game and losing all the progress you’ve made.

Bugs in Fallout: New Vegas

Now, there is no such thing as “perfect” code. Every piece of software has at least some degree of imperfection. In this day and age, a game has billions and billions of lines of code, and it is impossible to nail down every imperfection. It’s also been argued that the HD generation games are more complex than ever in terms of graphics and gameplay.  The argument goes that in an open-world environment like Fallout, it’s impossible to account for every possible variable a gamer can throw at a game’s graphics or physics engine.

However, some games have been buggy and even unfinished, almost to the point of feeling like a $60 beta test. A glitch in the system because a programmer didn’t anticipate a gamer doing such-and-such is one thing, but what about random freezes, screen tearing, floating limbs? If these things are encountered routinely by customers, shouldn’t the game’s testing team have caught them? It’s also not like working on a PC environment, where a game has to run on a variety of different hardware and software configurations. A 360 is a 360 is a 360, or that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

With consoles routinely Internet-capable, a lot of developers seem to be relying heavily on post-release patching to try to fix problems that come up after release, especially when the publisher is setting an absolute deadline for the game to be released, come hell or high water. However, patches are not always timely. Furthermore, there’s also the question of what happens to a game once all the servers are shut off.

The extreme version of these bugs actually comes in the form of hardware errors, like the 360’s RROD and E74 errors and the infamous “ApocalyPS3” that happened on March 1 of last year.  These oversights on the part of the platform holders result in inconvenience and expenses for customers, and millions of dollars in expenses for the platform holders to placate their customer base and avoid tarnishing the image of the console for potential new customers.

So, are bugs the inevitable price of the kind of complex graphics and game mechanics today’s gamers demand? Is it right for publishers to expect consumers to spend more money on games that seem unfinished?

The Wallet Vote

Ultimately, the design choices listed above are dictated by what the market will bear. While angry gamers may protest online passes or DLC vocally on Internet forums, they are preaching to the choir. Unless an unpopular DRM scheme can be proven to negatively impact the sales of a game that uses it, as happened with Spore, publishers will assume their customers are OK with it. As long as people are willing to pay $15 for multiplayer map packs, publishers will keep releasing them… and perhaps test the waters with incremental price increases. It is up to everyone to vote with their wallets as to what they do or don’t want from their games.

And if we are okay with online passes and day-one DLC, those things have gotten their foot in the door. What will we be asked to do next?

By otakuman5000 On 25 Feb, 2011 At 02:51 PM | Categorized As Nintendo DS, Portable/Mobile Gaming, Reviews | With 1 Comment

No GravatarSquare Enix and Disney’s whimsical and magical franchise has now a new remake of past mobile phone game. Many people have only recently rumbled that Kingdom Hearts has gotten stale and redundant with the many spin-off and prequel iterations of the franchise. What those people don’t seem to realize is the top notch quality in both game-play and graphics, as well as the constant building blocks to what will be the inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3. RE: Coded is another great game in the franchise that should not be over-shadowed with such doubts and rumblings, it a game that really stands on it’s own two feet.

The Story Takes place After KH2, Before KH3

At the start of the events of Kingdom Hearts RE Coded, the game establishes itself as a story that takes place after the events of Kingdom Hearts 2. While Sora and the rest of the Disney cast are featured in the game, most of the plot takes place within a digital rendition of Jimmny’s Journal, a book that chronicled the events of all the previous Kingdom Hearts games. The main premise is that there are events that are featured within the journal that never actually happened, so Mickey and the rest of the Disney gang create a digital version of Sora to fix up the data the journal creates and eliminate the Bugs and Glitches in the system. The Heartless, the main enemies of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, are featured in game, however the premiere enemies players will face are bugged/digitally modified versions of the Heartless.

Classic Kingdom Hearts Gameplay

The story itself might turn some long time fans off, in that it is another spin-off title from the main story established in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. However, fans will miss out on key important events that heavily set up the stage for the next official console game. This would include character relationships and events that will be the stepping stones for characters to be reintroduced in Kingdom Hearts 3. The worlds themselves are the same settings we have seen for the past few games, but there is an additional remake of Castle Oblivion, the main setting from Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories, that is included which gives a fresh breath of air for those that are tired of seeing Aladdin’s or Hercules’s world. There are sections that are true to the traditional Kingdom Hearts cut- scenes, but most of the game is made up of text dialogue and still image animations for most in game cut-scenes. If you can spare the thought of reading dialogue for most of the game in-between the beautifully rendered cut-scenes, you will find an engaging story that sets up many future conflicts to come for the franchise.

The Gangs All Here

The battle system for Kingdom Hearts RE Coded is great. It is very apparent that the team developing the Kingdom Hearts games are trying many ways to evolve and tweak the real time battle system. The fighting in-game feels like a blend of both Birth By Sleep and Kingdom Hearts 358/2. There are a ton of attacks players can find and synthesize as they defeat enemies and reach new worlds. Players can equip a certain amount of different melee and magic attacks to Sora, that will level up as enemies are defeated. Sora will level up now using the Data Chip grid, a new way to customize and level up Sora in a variety of different ways. What attributes to level up and what abilities to acquire is up to the player at any point they should choose, with an option to change up and manipulate attributes later on towards the end of the story.

Different variety of gameplay. Changes with each world.

What makes this game stand out from it’s predecessors is the variety of different game-play moments that occur at the end of each world Sora explores. During boss fights, players will experience a drastic change in the game play that is a different theme for each world. This ranges from a side-scrolling plat forming area, a face paced rail-shooter, and even a traditional turn based battle system similar to that of older Final Fantasy games. These changes in no way affect the game’s original battle system in any negative way, as they are limited to the boss sections for each world. They are however fun and a nice change of pace from mashing the A button for most of the game. The best part is that they can be replayed at a later time for achieving higher scores and better item rewards, which is vital for getting 100% completion.

This is how most scenes play out.

There is a multiplayer aspect to this game that, while not nearly as robust as Birth By Sleep, is helpful in acquiring new items and new challenges for the single player mode. The Avatar Menu allows players to create a custom made avatar sporting different accessories and trinkets gained from completing the main story. New items and clothing can be obtained from using Tag Mode, which allows the exchange of Avatars and items. It is also possible to gain new challenge rooms that are similar to the main game’s digital world, which looks vaguely similar to something out of TRON or Metal Gear Solid’s VR missions. By completing these rooms, even more items can be obtained to use and power up Sora.

Box Art for RE: Coded

Kingdom Hearts RE Coded is a game that at first glance, can be over-looked for being a useless spin-off title. With an open mind however, and a little patience, fans of the franchise will discover many things throughout the game that will excite them for Square Enix’s next installment of the series. New players will find an enjoyable lighthearted, yet deep RPG experience that makes this a must own for any RPG lover‘s gaming collection. The story is enjoyable, characters are lovable, and the game play is just right enough to make this game a stand out from the series it comes from. Hanging out with Mickey and the rest of the Kingdom Hearts cast has not gotten old just yet.